An Interview with Helen Thomas
Sometimes it's hard not to quail before your betters, and I just had that experience, in the best of ways. Helen Thomas agreed to speak with me about the war, the Bush administration, and life in the Beltway, and I am honored and flattered as a Little Blogger to have had this opportunity.
Helen's impressive bio can be found here. She's got long experience with Republican administrations, and earned her credentials as a feminist icon as the only woman member of the press corps to travel with Nixon to China. She written several books, which you can learn more about here.
Because this was a phone interview, this post will be a little shorter and different than my Q&A with another member of the White House press corps, Olivier Knox of the AFP.
I started out by thanking her for her bravery and willingness to ask the tough questions that few others are wont to do these days. I told her that she is well loved in the blogosphere, but I could tell that Ms. Thomas isn't the kind of person who enjoys a lot of flattery. She also didn't want to talk about herself, saying that enough has been written about her already. This strikes a sharp contrast with other members of the mainstream media, who seem to me to love being the center of attention, and always more interested in their own perspectives than the issues of the day (I'm looking at you, Bowtie).
We moved on to the topic of blogs.
Ms. Thomas "reads some" but isn't "totally addicted," and demonstrates that she understands what a time sink blogging can be for some of us. She says she's not really a computer person, but if she were, she'd probably read more blogs more frequently. In this she demonstrates that she is truly Old School, and I suspect that she is a believer in getting out there and pounding the pavement. Again, there's a strong contrast between someone like her and newer members of the media, who can't be bothered to google the topic they write upon, let alone get out there and do hard, old-fashioned investigative journalism. I'll add that Mr. Knox had something to say about that, pressures from bean counters to make news cheaper and more profitable, which make that kind of journalism less likely.
Ms. Thomas has words of caution for the blogosphere. Anyone with a laptop "isn't a journalist." She believes that journalists have ethical and professional standards that help them prevent mistakes that bloggers are at greater risk of making. Fact checking is another area in which Ms. Thomas believes bloggers are at risk.
Asked about the critiques of the press common in the progressive blogosphere, Ms. Thomas replied "that's a mouthful," because I tossed in stenography for Republicans, the incestuous relations between press and politicians, lack of investigative zeal in the press, and the failure to always print facts or admit to and correct mistakes. But she didn't exactly defend the press. They "let the country down" in the run up to the war, and "played ball" with the administration, and took "whole hog" the justifications for the invasion. This was a major "disservice to the country" in her eyes. But she's more positive about them now, saying that "Katrina turned them around" to the problems of the administration, and noting that the press now knows it's time to do "real reporting." She called it a "grand awakening."
Asked about her famous quote that Bush is the "worst president in history," she reminded me that she said so in 2002. She says that while he could have improved, he didn't and hasn't yet, and I don't think she's holding her breath waiting for that to change. Clearly the issue that makes Ms. Thomas the most emotional and forceful in her assertion about the failures of this administration is the war. She called it "unconscionable" and a "quagmire." She seemed particularly irked that the rationale for the war keeps changing, and that to this day it's hard to get a consistent answer from members of the administration, "you ask five people and you get five different reasons," she notes with no small feeling.
I can understand why this would be such an infuriating reality for someone who has such impeccable credentials as a journalist and who knows how to talk to politicians; it's beyond insulting.
Ms. Thomas doesn't think there is any good reason for the war. "People are killing, and dying, for what?" Asked why she thinks the American people have accepted this war for so long, she said that 9/11, and the fear and uncertainty it engendered, kept people behind the war effort far longer than would've been possible otherwise. "Fear is a powerful weapon," she relates, and she notes how strong the urge is to support the president after an attack. She said that such fear caused people to accept not only the war, but also government intrusions on privacy, and the shifting rationale for the war.
But Ms. Thomas believes that people "woke up last November," and are now asking questions that they would or could not previously. Ms. Thomas very much wants straight answers from Bush. "We had a choke hold on Saddam," and some of the most strict and painful sanctions on a third world nation ever, to the point of causing "children to die." Ms. Thomas really is not satisfied that the war, on top of that ugly history, is excusable. "There was never any threat from a third world country to the most powerful military on earth," she says.
Asked about the differences between this administration and previous ones when it comes to press relations, Ms. Thomas nails it: "secrecy." "Every president wants secrecy," she relates. But this administration wants untold amounts, something Ms. Thomas doesn't believe they need, or that the press should let them have. But the Bush administration's unwillingness to be open makes it "more difficult" on reporters today. Ms. Thomas also says that the press needs whistleblowers and insiders to come forward with information, something that isn't as common to this administration. Little wonder Bush values loyalty in his employees above all else. Ms. Thomas laments that there are "unknown motives" at play in the White House, and more damning is her estimation of why they are so secret: because their hidden motivations for policy would be "unacceptable" if made clear to the public.
Asked about the probability of a Constitutional crisis brought on by the reality of a new Democratic majority, Ms. Thomas isn't bubbling about the Democrats. They are "too chicken" to really "go to the mat on the issues" and too "concerned with the elections (of 2008)," nor are they willing to "stick their necks out" to do what is right. Worst of all, they "don't feel that strongly" about the immorality of the war and other conditions created by the administration. Keeping their positions is the true motivation for most Democrats, and little else.
Ms. Thomas won't make a prediction about which Democrats or Republicans have the best chance at the nomination. She did say how much she liked Edwards, and his focus on issues like health care and poverty. She was impressed he admitted he was wrong on his war vote. She really wants the next President to "pull this country out of its moral slump."
Ms. Thomas had two words to answer my question, 'what is the biggest problem facing good government today?' "Lousy leadership." The follow up question about what is different today compared to when she first entered the business was hardly more reassuring. Back then, and unlike today, people understood the true meaning of public service, and followed in the tradition of Lincoln. People in previous governments have wanted to "make a contribution" and help "the sick, the poor, those without shelter" and had concern for issues like fairness and health care. She stressed that this isn't found in the Beltway today, and she blames much of our current situation on Reagan, "when all this began."
Cub that I am, I couldn't help ask this giant for a little advice. I wanted to know how citizen journalists and bloggers could gain more access to the politicians and newsmakers we write about on the blogosphere. She said, "Keep plugging away. You have more access than you think," and implied we're more powerful than is generally admitted. She also encouraged us to "spread the word" about the blogosphere, which I take to mean to our friends and neighbors who still rely on the mainstream press.
She loves Colbert and agreed to do the little video for the press correspondent's dinner because he is funny. I think she understood the cover she was giving him, and perhaps he needed it, to be willing to risk so much with his routine.
Ms. Thomas strikes me as a person who is impatient with a lot of the dissembling and excuse-making in our political society today, and I can understand why. She's really unhappy with the war, its lack of a meaningful raison d'etre, and the senseless bloodshed and violence in Iraq. She obviously is tired of cowboy imperialism, and mentioned several times that the US has no right to pick on small and powerless nations in a poorly covered attempt to control their resources.
It's kind of odd, as a filthy mouthed rabid lamb of the blogosphere, to hear someone like Ms. Thomas unfiltered. Indeed, I'm a little ashamed. Let's face it, we bloggers have a lot of fun with our anger, making naughty jokes and using silly or sloppy language, mainly because we can get away with it. To hear her, I was reminded of the elegance of righteous anger, which clearly she has. At the same time, I am not sorry that we are of dissimilar generations- it must be painful for her to see the decline in standards in almost every arena. I can say that as a young person and adult, I've had no direct experience with what has been lost- I don't doubt Ms. Thomas is at times wistful for the days when government did good. I imagine she harbors great disappointment in the younger generation of the press as well.
Ms. Thomas had some sharp warnings for us, from the benefit of her direct experience in similar history. "We left Vietnam by our fingertips, people on rooftops," and reminded us of other ugly images of the last days of that 'police action.' Further, "100,000 private contractors is no way to go," and while she isn't prone to using the CT/foily language, it's clear what she meant by that. "Everyone" (American) needs to leave Iraq "right now" because the war is little better than a "crass approach to controlling oil" that denies Iraqis their rights as human beings "to live."
She signed off with "let's give peace a chance" and charmingly laughed about stealing that line from the Beatles. It's a simple wisdom that suits her well.
NOTE: Ms. Thomas will most likely not come by to answer questions, as she's a busy person not often sitting around loafing off in front of her computer. She may drop by, but don't expect too much. If something particularly pressing comes up in the comments, I'll pass them on but without the guarantee that she'll get back to us. She shames us younger folk with her energy and professionalism, eh?